He was named to the "Business of Fashion 500" in its inaugural year of 2013. His ever-informed and individual opinions on fashion shows appear on BoF and are always the ones I want to read first each season. In addition to BoF, his words have appeared in Fantastic Man, The Gentlewoman, Purple, L'Uomo Vogue, and multiple other European magazines. He doesn't mince words, can quickly spot the ephemeral versus the significant, and never blindly jumps on a bandwagon no matter how glamorous it may appear. His erudite thoughts are a balm to see once you realize you need substance beyond the onslaught of images on IG that immediately follow the start of each show. If I designed clothes it's Angelo Flaccavento's approval in the industry I'd be happiest to receive and I'm happy I now know what he's read in his life to become the very special writer he is. -Wes Del Val
WDV: Has an author’s personal style which you liked ever influenced what you thought of their writing? I know I’ve wondered if I’d admire Samuel Beckett’s work so much if I also didn’t think he was one of the most dashing men ever.
AF: I would not say influenced, rather completed or enriched with another layer of meaning, or fascination: I find personal style akin to handwriting, which means it is something very telling, in particular when it is spontaneous. And with spontaneous I mean authentic, not contrived. People who make an effort are always commendable, as long as the effort is true to themselves. William Burroughs’ rather stern grey suit to me is the perfect complement to the deranged, mind-expanding quality of his writing, and a canny signifier of a personality split between convention and rebellion. Similarly, Hunter S.Thompson’s long socks are a sensible addition to his gonzo persona. On a general level, I pretty much admire writers who project a sense of self-possession when it comes to style. Tom Wolfe and Mark Twain in their impeccable white suits are an epitome of literary and gentlemanly accuracy for me. So is Emil Cioran with his slightly sad vestiaire and wonderfully unruly mane, or Leonardo Sciascia in his impeccably somber grey suits and perfectly pressed shirt: a look worthy of a school teacher in a tiny burg, which in fact he was by day.
Are there living writers you can assess the same way?
Honestly, not much. There is this very interesting book that was published a few years ago, Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore, and the living or contemporary examples are not enlightening, to me at least. I mean, the slightly grungy-clothed persona of David Foster Wallace was on point, but it also looked a bit like a pose, if I can. That’s what puts me off about contemporary writers, and even more about artists: the look is part of the package as it has to convey and sell the personality. They are visual embodiments of a clichè that is spendable on the media. I cannot see much spontaneity, even when the attitude is one of complete disregard for clothing. Lack of spontaneity, even at the peak of flamboyancy, puts me off. Then again, whoever looks at me will surely object that my way of dressing is far from being spontaneous, too, but I think differently and I believe I can spot when a look is made up. In writers I admire, and let’s put the very bourgeoise Simone de Bouvoir in the lot, the look is never about having a look. Rather it is a uniform, an extension of inner thoughts or maybe a protection from the outside world. This last line is very personal: my rather somber, monastic look is a shield. I can see that in writers like Michel Foucault: that white turtleneck he wore constantly, even under the sex-club-redolent leather Perfecto, looks to my eye like a way to keep up a zing of properness, at every cost.
Jack Kerouac’s image was used in a Gap advertisement in 1993 and Joan Didion was shot for a Céline one a few years ago (and a classic, though I found too predictable, shot of her in the late 60s is on the cover of the author and clothes book you just mentioned). A semi-related question to the above since we’re talking writers’ style is: What is it about writers that so few are ever called upon by fashion houses to advertise their wares when the industry clearly loves using non-models, like athletes, movie stars, and musicians? I have my own reasons, but would like to know yours.
You are right, and I think this comes with the heavily market-oriented mentality of contemporary fashion. Quite simply, writers have a far less wide-reaching appeal than movie stars or athletes. And when fashion houses look at writers and include them in their narrative, they do so to project an image of utter sophistication, sending a message that sounds like: we are above the rest. Recently Valentino did some poetry reading on their Instagram and I found it both interesting and awkward. Poetry is a serious thing, and I believe those self-proclaimed poets doing basically broken lines on IG are not real poets, so mixing these—for the coolness factor—with a real poet like Mariangela Gualtieri was a bad curation for me. The real problem, to me, is that, for some strange reason, fashion is, deep down, scared by culture, and so it uses it in ways that project superiority—the case for Prada, whose rather patronizing attitude I find a bit classist—or taking actions that would need some further rumination, like the aforementioned Valentino. The idea per se was wonderful, the execution not so much.
If you were shown pictures of anonymous bookshelves, seeing which titles would indicate to you that the owner and you would probably get along very well?
I would not prejudge on the titles—personal taste and inclinations are not questionable, even though seeing the heavily marketed bestsellers du moment, or du recent past, is a NO for me. I am always favorably impressed by a well-equipped library—more is more for me when it comes to books—and most of all what impresses me are well-worn, evidently-used books. I like it a lot when I see the classics in there, from Dante to Joyce, but also when a bookshelf signals a very specific taste. For instance, genre writing is considered on the B list of literary inclinations, but Ian Fleming and George Simenon are actually wonderful writers. A nice bookshelf dressed up with coffee table tomes selected by the architect just because they signal status puts me down, especially as I, a person of both words and images, am instantly attracted to art books. Anyone who owns I borghesi stanchi, a massive tome of drawings and words by the late Leo Longanesi will instantly be my friend. This book is an unsung gem: a brilliant satire of the bourgeoisie in quick sketches and sardonic verses. Whoever runs the IG Art Books & Ephemera must have bookshelves that get me salivating.
I had to put that part of the sentence in bold as I so wholeheartedly agree. And yes, AB&E is the best, his collection is niche and seemingly endless.
If you could write a book about any writer from any period who would it be?
This is a hard one. So many. I am fascinated by someone like Voltaire, for the historic moment he inhabited and for his energizing belief in the enlightenment of culture, just as I am by the renegade life of Hunter Thompson or the encyclopedic knowledge of Giorgio Manganelli. Ennio Flaiano’s comic pessimism is so inspiring, I’d love to write about him, too.
Comic pessimism, it’s one of my very favorites as well and I feel like non-Americans appreciate it so much more than American readers generally do. Please tell me what you like about Flaiano’s version of it that makes it so inspiring.
What I find endlessly inspiring about Ennio Flaiano—whom with his moustache, dark suit and chubby figure cut a fascinating silhouette, too, and who worked as the scriptwriter to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita—is the clarity of vision, the glaring simplicity of the writing, and the ability to laugh, or smile, at the misery of human nature. He has a way of saying very bitter things in a manner that feels soft, yet still piercing. His understanding of human behavior is canny. He also speaks to me on a stylistic level as he writes in fragments, short short stories, sentences. His thoughts are pulverized and the reader feels like they’re getting the particles.
Sounds wonderful. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much of him in English so may have to appeal to our friends at NYRB to help rectify.
Which living writers’ homes would you most like to have free reign to tour?
To be completely honest with you, I’d love not to explore the houses, but the heads of writers I admire. They don’t make them like these anymore: men like the aforementioned Ennio Flaiano, whose understanding of behavior and psychology belies the ability to detect meaning in the smallest signs, or an encyclopedic connoisseur like Giorgio Manganelli, whose hunger for literature in its many forms feels derangedly sensual to me. Manganelli was a glutton of words: when reading his books, which often do not even have a story or are mere rhetoric exercises, I always learn new words, new ways to construct a sentence, and that is so valuable for me. I must confess here that I read certain writers, my favorite writers, for the technique of writing, for the wording more than the stories. I forget the stories right away, but the style remains. I like Ágota Kristóf, whose trilogy of the city of K (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie –WDV) is an all time favorite, because of the dryness of the prose and the martial rhythm she gives to her stories, but also because, as an Italian who oftentimes writes in English, I can relate to a Czek writing in French. No matter how fluent, when writing in what is not your native language, a disconnection happens: I feel like an adult with the writing means—vocabulary, syntax—of a child, and that I find in Kristof. The style is simplistic, but there is so much fire burning below it.
When it comes to houses, I would have loved to see how Emil Cioran lived, because apparently he was very frugal and a real flâneur roaming the streets of Paris for whole days. So maybe he lived in something that looked like a monk’s cell, which I’d love. Extreme frugality turns my mind on, just like extreme lavishness. For pure reasons of good taste, as she is such a stylish woman, I’d like to visit the rooms inhabited by Joan Didion.
Fully agree regarding extremes on either end and I’m particularly enamored of those on the sparse one. As a quick aside, and I apologize for sending you elsewhere while in the middle of this interview, but this is my favorite such example I’ve seen in many years. I just had to share.
Ok, back to books and reading.
If you could go anywhere in the world for a week and select a book each day from a bookstore to read, where and which bookstore?
I’d love to travel back in time, to my hometown of Ragusa, Sicily, and roam again the gigantic rooms of the Giovanni Paolino bookstore. Mr Paolino was my first bookseller: the place was huge and my father used to leave me there when making commissions in the city center. He and Mr Paolino were long-time friends. I remember that bookstore like a labyrinth, filled with everything. My most cherished books were bought there. I have a copy of Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind I bought around 1989, and Leonardo Sciascia’s Candido from even earlier.
Is it no longer open or do you just never find yourself in Ragusa? What did it have that you miss when you go into other bookstores?
The bookstore is no longer open. At one point it moved to another location, but it was not quite the same: smaller, and in a way cooler, more elegant, but less captivating. What I liked about the original one was the scale: so big, some areas seemed not to have been touched for years, full of dusty old tomes. It gave me a sense of discovery. I always went there without a plan, and went out with bags of books. I am sure there are plenty of places like this in the world, but I am not that little child anymore. I would not say I am blasé, but with the weft of experience comes being less ready to be surprised. What I miss is the feeling of being in a cave, ready for treasure hunting.
How does current book culture in Italy strike you? Do you see people leaving bookstores with bags or empty-handed, and what does it take for you to buy a book today?
Italians are not the best readers at the moment, probably. I rarely see people leaving bookstores with bags full of stuff. We have pumped-up literary cases every now and then that catalyze the attention of the public and urge everyone to buy, but it’s forgettable stuff. The problem is that newspapers and magazines do not foster good quality writing—with the exception of daily papers Il Foglio and Il Manifesto—while in the past great writers, Dino Buzzati to name one, who wrote incredibly catchy cronaca nera (crime news) articles for Il Corriere della Sera—used papers as their writing gym, so to speak. It’s all very disappointing.
Curiosity is what it takes for me to buy a book today. I still enter bookstores without a plan and roam freely: fiction, non-fiction, poetry. If a title or cover gets my curiosity, I dive in and read a few random pages. If what I encounter interests me, I buy.
What were formative book and magazine reads which got you interested in fashion?
There were a lot of magazines in my house, as my mom has always been an avid reader. On top of that, both my aunt and uncle were hi-end fashion retailers, so they got many books and magazines from fashion houses, which they gave to me since my interest in fashion sparked really early. So the first formative reading was early 80s issues of Vogue Italia and Gap, which was a very well-read and well-written trade magazine. Then I started choosing by myself and i-D was THE magazine: a place of crazy ideas and crazier fashions, conveyed with a lively visual language. But in terms of Italian writing, Brunetta and Camilla Cederna have had a huge impact on my thinking and prose, for the sharpness of vision and the wit of the writing and, in the case of Brunetta, the drawings. So the formative book is Il Lato Debole, a collection of Camilla’s columns illustrated by Brunetta.
The Cederna names are new to me, as I’m sure they will be to most readers, so since they’ve made such a difference in your life, we’d love to know more about them.
Camilla Cederna was extremely sharp in her analysis of the superficial obsession of the Italian consumerist and nouveau riche society. Her gaze was sharp and unremitting, always finding the weak spot in everything that was so cool at a given moment in history. She was extra bitter, and yet she never came across as teacher-like, or someone patronizing. She mocked fashions and obsessions, but in a respectful way. Her way of looking at things and then writing her impression has been deeply formative for me, in the sense that I find in Cederna a template of informative journalism with a personal point of view and a fierce no-bullshit attitude. All this, in a wonderfully elegant Milanese package; la Cederna was never seen without perfectly coiffed hair and pussibow blouse.
After putting it like that I can certainly see her strong influence in your critical writing.
What do you read these days which keeps you interested in observing and writing about fashion?
I keep myself interested in fashion by not reading about fashion. The Saturday edition of newspaper Il Foglio is my weekly must, as it features longform articles on matters ranging from art to society to cinema. I find myself intrigued by the writing on cinema by Mariarosa Mancuso, for both the unexpected point of view and witty style. When I am prepping for a fashion month and the seasons of on-the-road reviews, I religiously re-read random pages from La Solitudine del Satiro by Ennio Flaiano and Camilla Cederna’s Quando si ha ragione, just to remember what an honest point of view conveyed through impeccable writing is. I love gossipy, silly reading: Dagospia is the best Italian site in this sense, with truly amusing headlines. I am a sucker for a punchy headline. When I feel in a more academic mode, I read the fiction section of fashion journal Vestoj, where clothing and roundabouts are treated as part of novels and short stories. There is some interesting reading material on Anothermag.com, but the truth is I am very random. First thing in the morning I read Il Foglio, Il Sole 24 Ore and news agency ANSA online and for the rest I jump here and there wherever Google takes my fancy. I am impressed by the journalism of the New Yorker for how informed it is—Rebecca Mead’s profile of Alessandro Michele is a wonderful token of prose and investigation. The New Yorker and Interview writings by Ingrid Sischy collected in Nothing Is Lost are a masterclass in insightful journalism: that is one book I often return to, a bit enviously, because I can truly see Sichy was given a long time to write her profiles, carrying multiple interviews with the same subject, and that made a big difference. Today when you get a commission you are lucky if you get a week from first contact to filing a finished story. I might sound old, but quality takes time.
Yes, Nothing Is Lost is one I’ll as well go back to repeatedly for years to come. The trim size of the book was a bit too large for my taste, but kudos to Knopf overseers for going with that elegant, timeless cover design.
Who are some people in fashion who have impressed you with being well-read?
Many of them. A lot of my colleagues are well-read and so are a few designers. Rick Owens, for instance, whose interest for a decadent writer like Huysmans is particularly noteworthy, within his very own aesthetic system. But to be honest with you, I am more likely to discuss books with friends and acquaintances outside of fashion because talking books with colleagues or designers often becomes a race to show off who is the smartest and most cultured, and I am not interested in that. I am genuinely interested in exchange, and in quality over quantity. For instance, Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy was mentioned to me briefly during a car ride by an architect. He said just a few things, but that made me want to immediately read the books. There are journalists who occasionally touch fashion, like Michele Masneri, whose advice I would completely take. I like his classy way of being bitchy.
Very good point about the know-it-all race.
Who is someone most of us probably wouldn’t know, but their writing and opinions are very meaningful to you?
Antonio Pippolini, my partner, is someone whose opinions are fundamental to me. He is not a writer, but a draughtsman, but his sharp sensibility is priceless when I edit, and his notations are always stimulating and mind-expanding.
That’s lovely. How does he contribute priceless feedback when you edit? Every writer should be so lucky to have a discerning, trustworthy eye so close at hand.
Antonio reads my stories when I think they are done. He always unremittingly points out what is missing in terms of tone, where the writing goes weak, what I should keep and what I should take away. We sometimes have fights on this, but I know he is right, even when that means rewriting the whole thing. I trust him because not being a fashion person, he gives me the feedback of a real reader. I do not want to only talk to fashion readers.
What’s your preferred way to organize your books?
By publishing house and format, except for the miscellaneous shelf above my desk, where I store all the books that I consider fundamental. One book I could not do without is Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit: it is so witty, so sardonic, so absurd. Also, living both in Milano and Ragusa, of all the authors I love (Flaiano, Gadda, Manganelli) I have double copies, so that books do not travel and each library is safe.
By publisher? Wow, that’s a first in this series. Begs me to ask then by which publishers do you have the most books? And can you give us some more of what titles are on your fundamentals shelf?
Adelphi is the Italian publisher which makes up ¾ of my whole library: they have a wonderfully eclectic catalogue and they still stand for quality and literature with a capital L to this very day. I always trust what they publish, because there is a cultural plan behind it, not a marketing one, even though they are the Italian publishers of huge bestsellers such as Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version. Adelphi also happens to have Manganelli, Flaiano, Sciascia, Landolfi, Cioran in their catalogue. Most of these are on that shelf I mentioned, which also houses Nothing Is Lost, Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, Glenn O’Brien’s essays, a small book of Piranesi etchings, Gillo Dorfles’ Mode & Modi and a funny bestiary by Guerrilla Spam I got as a present for my 48th birthday, this year. The other publishers that feature heavily in my library are Sellerio and Einaudi. To tell you a fetishistic truth, I love both Adelphi and Sellerio for the paper they use: so rich and tactile. The Adelphi series Piccola Biblioteca is my absolute favorite: pocket-size, super elegant, with deranged colors for the covers.
Don’t be at all bashful about preferring some books for their physical qualities. Not in front of this crowd!
Which writers would you welcome to write about fashion and style as you think they’d deliver fresh insight and observations?
This is quite a hard question. Let’s put it like this: I’d love to have William Burroughs apply his cut-up point of view to the psychology of clothing, and Yasmina Reza her wit, her way to decode behaviors. I’d love Ennio Flaiano to decode fashion as a render of status and Yoko Ono to unleash all its absurdities.
I hope we continue for years to come to see you tap these and your other influences to keep giving us honest, sharp fashion commentary. Thanks Angelo!